Protein Power

Merrill Shindler - July/August 2005

Merrill Shindler explores a carnivore's paradise direct from Brazil in Beverly Hills.

The Brazilian churrascaria Fogo de Chão is a monument to meat in the midst of the beefiest section of Beverly Hills. A few doors north is Arnie Morton's of Chicago, where well-heeled diners luxuriate in the joys of prime steak fast-cooked over grills hot enough to smelt iron. Across the street is Lawry's the Prime Rib, where generations of locals have flocked for a family meal of salad flavored with bottled dressing and meat sliced on rolling carts the size of Cadillac Escalades. The Porterhouse Bistro is around the corner. And yet, no one does meat like Fogo de Chão, where an entire kitchen is dedicated to protein, cooked in a fashion that dates back 300 years or more.

The original branches of Fogo de Chão are in Brazil—three in São Paulo, one in Porto Alegre. In 1997 the first North American Fogo opened in Dallas, followed by outposts in Houston, Atlanta, Chicago, and now Beverly Hills. And though all the Fogos are dramatic structures, the chain opted to throw everything they had at their first West Coast operation. It's become an instant landmark on La Cienega Boulevard's Restaurant Row, an $8 million structure ($2 million of that went into the kitchen), fronted by a blue tile tower in which a carousel of meat rotates from morning till night, a beacon for carnivores throughout Southern California, serving 30,000 pounds of meat a month at this one branch alone.

What's cooking inside that tower are four racks of beef ribs, each about four-by-four-feet in size, rotating constantly on a rib display rotisserie from J&R Manufacturing of Mesquite, Texas—the perfect place in which to make broilers that burn heaping piles of mesquite coals. Oddly, the beef ribs that blaze in the firelight in front of the restaurant will never be eaten. "They're just for display," says the wonderfully named Vilmar Zenzen, a gaucho (pronounced in three syllables: gah-OOH-cho) who's in his 15th year with the Fogo chain. "After all that cooking, they'd be too tough to eat. They look great—unbelievable—but we have to throw them out at the end of the night."

Instead, the meat that's served is cooked on a room-sized churrasqueira (rotisserie) from J&R, with 108 rotating skewers that sit over a deep pit of raging mesquite charcoal. The room, dedicated to the thrill of the grill and the art of the barbecue, has its own staff, separate and apart from those who work in the adjoining kitchen, where dishes are prepared for the buffet that begins every meal.

The churrascaria kitchen actually consists of two rooms—one in which the meat is prepared with marinades and then skewered, the other in which the meat is cooked. Interestingly, the preparation, the cooking, and then the serving at the tables (in a style known as espeto corrido—"continuous service"—which is Portuguese for "all-you-can-eat") are performed by the same people.

"The gauchos," says Zenzen, "have to know how to do everything. They have to know how to butcher the meat, how to flavor it, and where to place it on the grill. They watch it all the time as it turns, and they move the skewers constantly, so it's always at the best temperature. It's like playing a piano or leading an orchestra—their hands are moving all the time. They understand meat. And they understand how much of the flavor comes from the mesquite, from the smoke. They are masters."

They're masters whose training is not unlike that of a sushi chef. A classically trained cook isn't allowed to touch a knife or a piece of fish for years; a Fogo-trained gaucho also doesn't touch a knife or a slab of beef for years. Zenzen says, "I started in the kitchen washing dishes—and watching, always watching. After maybe a year, I became a busboy and slowly was allowed to learn more. After two years, you get to serve the employees. That way, you get to know the food without making a mistake with a customer. Then, when you're comfortable with the knife, slowly, very slowly, they let you out on the floor. It takes at least two years of training before you approach the public with a knife in hand. And even then, we begin with knives that aren't very sharp. As you gain more skill, the knives get sharper."

What they're slicing are 13 cuts of meat, each served on a skewer, each carved not just at tableside but over your plate on the table. The gauchos who have been tending the meat spinning on the skewers carry them into the dining room, where they carve them to order for every diner—filet mignon and beef ribs, three different cuts of sirloin (picanha, alcatra, and fraldinha), leg of lamb (cordeiro), pork loin (lombo, flavored with Parmesan or not, as you wish), pork ribs (costela del porco), pork sausage (linguica), and frango, an assortment of chicken pieces.

The gauchos march about the 300 seat dining room like the Army of Atkins, dressed in soft black leather boots, loose-fitting black pleated pantaloons with a wide leather belt about their middles, a blousy shirt, and a red neckerchief. And they don't just slice the meat—they finesse every cut.

"We can carve the meat at the table the way the customer wants," explains Zenzen. "Some of the skewers are prepared rare, some medium, some well done—some of the cuts allow us to have all three on one skewer. The first slice is medium or well, the second is medium-rare, the third can be rare. It's all in the skill of the gaucho, who watched as the meat was cooking—he knows how it is. In Brazil, they like their meat a little rarer than in the United States. They also like their meat saltier. We use sea salt, a hard salt. If there's more salt, there's less blood; it changes the texture, so the meat is juicier here in the U.S. And some people just want the crust, the crunch. Our cooking style makes for a very crusty meat."

There's also much praise for the beef they've found here in America. "Here the quality of the meat is better. There is good meat in Brazil, but not every cut is good. The beef in Brazil is grass-fed. Here it is grain-fed. We hear it's different, but it doesn't taste different. Maybe that's because of the charcoal. When you cook with mesquite, it's very hot. It burns the differences out of the meat. You get the mesquite flavor, which is very strong. Some churrasqueiras use gas, but not us. We only use mesquite; it's the best."

Adjacent to the wall of skewers sits a completely different kitchen, separate, larger and not nearly as dramatic. It's hard to compete with what's essentially a wall of fire. It's in this kitchen that dishes are prepared for the buffet in the center of the restaurant, a custom-built ice bath covered with platters containing more than 30 items: roasted red and yellow peppers, sun-dried tomatoes, hearts of palm, marinated mushrooms, tabbouleh, jumbo asparagus, fresh baby mozzarella, prosciutto—a fine meal in and of itself. (The buffet can be ordered separately for $22; the whole meal with meat is $50.)

The buffet is replenished constantly, with separate sections of the sprawling kitchen dedicated to different dishes, which are prepared using Hobart mixers, blenders, and slicers, then cooked in Wolf ovens, Frymaster fryers, and Cleveland steamers. The dishes are stored in a wall of American Panel freezers and Delfield refrigerators. There's a selection of 10,000 bottles of wine as well, kept in a two-story-high tower—a match for the tower of meat at the entrance—with wine racks by International Wine Accessories and a temperature control system by Aprilaire.

But mostly, Fogo de Chão is about the meat. Zenzen says, "In Brazil there are more parts at some places. Some churrascarias serve chicken hearts and gizzards. But Fogo is built around beef, lamb, pork, and chicken. We don't do quail or rabbit, venison or frog. And we don't do hot dishes on the buffet—no feijoada—because we cannot maintain the quality. Our concept is fire and ice—what must be served hot is served very hot; what must be served cold is served over ice. That's the Brazilian way. We're in Beverly Hills, but we haven't really left Brazil."

Equipment

"Merrill Shindler"

Blender Hobart
Bread warmer APW Wyott
Churrasqueiras (rotisseries) J&R Manufacturing
Coffee bar system La Cimbali
Convection oven & range Wolf
Dishwasher Ecolab
Fryers Frymaster
Ice machine Hoshizaki America
Microwave Sharp
Mixer Hobart
P.O.S. system Aloha
Refrigeration Delfield
Slicer Hobart
Steamer Cleveland Range
Vapor exhaust hoods Gaylord
Ventilation system Grease Master
Walk-in freezers American Panel
Wine cellar temperature control system Aprilaire
Wine racks International Wine Accessories